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How Blockchain Builds Trust for Brands in the Digital Age

December 06, 2023

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Proof of Authenticity: How Blockchain Builds Trust for Brands in the Digital Age

With the proliferation of AI-created content globally, misinformation and digital deception have reached crisis levels. Yet many brands stand by as their reputations and revenues suffer from false narratives spreading unchecked. 

Enter blockchain and digital identities – innovations underpinning Web 3.0 which have the capability to prove authenticity, integrity, and ownership, effectively acting as a shield against disinformation or misrepresentation. With these technologies identified as key trends in McKinsey’s tech outlook for 2023, let’s explore how they can herald a new era of provable trust and transparency for brands.

But first, the technical bit: what is blockchain and digital identity? 

Blockchain is a decentralised ledger that records transactions or data across many computers. With no central control, it cannot be altered or manipulated. This makes it immutable and tamper-proof. These verifiable, permanent records enable “trustless” transactions, where parties can exchange assets or information without needing to trust counterparties or intermediaries. 

Digital identities are user profiles linked to information held on a blockchain. Like unique signatures, they prove someone’s identity through private cryptographic keys. Anchoring identities to content via digital watermarking or fingerprints certifies its origin and integrity. 

The ethos driving adoption of blockchain is “don’t trust, verify”. By removing need for trust and enabling independent verification, blockchain and digital IDs offer irrefutable proof of authenticity - the foundation for establishing trust in the digital age.

Reputational management 

Deepfakes, AI-generated videos impersonating real people, are rapidly emerging as one of the most socially disruptive technologies. Their potential for misinformation is exponentially amplified by shifts in news and content consumption with over 53% of U.S. adults now getting their news from social platforms. But social media's immediacy, hyper-connectivity and algorithmic amplification creates the ideal environment for deepfakes to go viral before proper verification.

This poses tremendous challenges - according to a 2021 study in Harvard's Misinformation Review, deepfakes significantly undermine trust in news and institutions when exposed to synthetic media. Recent examples, such as a 2021 deepfake of President Zelenskyy calling for downing of arms, or a Joe Rogan deepfake on vaccines in 2022, leave no ambiguity on the potential dangers.

For brands, deepfakes pose serious reputation risks. Impersonations of executives or false product claims could destroy consumer trust if they go viral. Brands must urgently develop strategies to monitor, detect, and debunk deepfakes to protect reputations in an era where content authenticity can no longer be taken for granted. Though the threats are real, blockchain presents tools to safeguard authenticity.

The Blockchain Solution 

To tackle such challenges, media organisations have started to employ blockchain as a solution. Dating back to 2020, The New York Times' "News Provenance Project" explored using blockchain to combat misinformation by looking to reduce risk of information de-contextualised and being used as ‘fake news’. 

Its descendent in the quest for content authenticity stands out as a potential game-changer. The Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity (C2PA) addresses the prevalence of misleading information online through the development of technical standards for certifying the source and history of media content.  

C2PA utilises digital signatures, hashing techniques, and decentralised identifiers to authenticate the origin of media assets. Microsoft, BBC, and Adobe are among the companies spearheading adoption. For example, the BBC intends to develop a blockchain-powered registry for its entire archives. This will enable transparency into the source and distribution of BBC content, combating plagiarism or unauthorized use.  

Importantly, blockchain's verification capabilities extend to also certifying distribution channels and mediums. This enables brands to track content sharing across platforms, validating assets maintain integrity when shared through authorised mediums. Blockchain oracles can also continuously verify performance data like view counts and shares to spot manipulations in social proofing. 

Authenticating the entire lifecycle of content - from origin, through distribution, to final metrics - is key for brands to have complete trust and transparency, and helps protect consumers sifting through misinformation to support trust in digital environments. 

Protecting Creators in the AI Era

Content creators like photographers, artists, and videographers invest heavily in producing original, high-quality work. But in the digital age their creations are frequently stolen, reused without permission, or repurposed out of context. A 2022 study by WriterAccess analysing over 5,000 online images found 17% contained copyright-infringed material, indicating widespread unauthorized usage. 

This landscape poses risks for brands' content strategies and consumer trust. As an additional complexity, companies increasingly leverage user-generated content and AI-remixed media, making clearly defining original versus copied work more difficult. Heinz's "Draw Ketchup" campaign tapped artists to create images for AI transformation - but are the ads truly original Heinz creations or AI-generated content? This ambiguity around authorship and ownership in the age of AI collaboration creates new challenges for brands. 

For brands navigating complex digital terrains, implementing blockchain verification provides a solution to preserve attribution. By tracing content origins, it enables assurances that a brand’s digital assets are authentic and correctly associated with creators. 
Bridging the digital / physical divide 

Some startups are already offering digital certificates for content and end-products, verifying origins and ensuring integrity. For instance, the startup Mattereum has rolled out a blockchain-based "Asset Passport” system where each real world or content asset has a verified digital twin tokenised as an NFT (Non-Fungible Token). 

An NFT is a unique digital asset that represents ownership or proof of authenticity of a specific item or piece of content, secured on a blockchain. NFTs are unique: each has identifying information recorded in its metadata that makes it distinct from any other NFT, making it hugely powerful for ownership, IP, and proving provenience. This tokenisation of real-world assets makes it easier for consumers and businesses alike to verify what they are seeing and buying. 

Companies can issue NFTs to represent their physical products or even specific marketing campaigns. Nike’s ongoing collaboration with RTFKT, a creator-led digital/physical product studio - led to cryptokicks IrL (in real life). 19,000 cryptokicks IrL NFTs were minted through a public draw costing 0.5ETH to enter (around $616 at the time) which can then be redeemed for a physical pair of smart trainers.  

The NFTs themselves - and so access to the physical product - are tradable, hold a value, and importantly cannot be counterfeited in any way, so owners can authenticate that these items are truly associated with the brand and campaign in question. 

An ecosystem for establishing authenticity 

While blockchain offers a strong solution for verifying content, other technological approaches also hold promise.  

Bespoke AI environments such as Coca-Cola's “Create Real Magic” can provide a safe exploratory playground for brands. Digital signatures enable certification of authenticity but rely on centralised issuers. Metadata standards help incorporate attribution details if widely adopted. Watermarking and DRM provide visible or usage-based signals, though removable in the former case and crackable in the latter. Media forensics and manual fact-checking can identify manipulations through deep analysis, however may struggle to match blockchain's scalability.  

With its decentralised, tamper-proof ledger, blockchain provides unique immutable evidence of provenance, however a diversity of solutions will likely be needed to tackle the multifaceted challenges of establishing authenticity. 

Making Blockchain Verification Tangible for Consumers 

While blockchain enables behind-the-scenes content verification, recognisable indicators are needed to surface this value to users. Standards bodies developing trust certifications, browser plug-ins identifying blockchain-authenticated assets, and brands exploring consumer-facing NFT integrations offer early routes to adoption.

But realisation of blockchain’s full potential requires intuitive symbols and experiences letting average consumers instantly recognise authentication. Without ubiquitous markers proving authenticity, the advantages remain largely invisible. Keeping human-centred design at the core as intuitive interfaces evolve will be key to translating blockchain’s technical trust into felt digital confidence.

The Takeaway: Blockchain safeguards brands' most valuable assets

Research consistently shows brand investment drives performance, and in an era of misinformation, nurturing a brand's reputation and consumer perception is critical.

For brands, embracing technology that allows for provable integrity and an authentic relationship will distinguish themselves and earn consumer trust in our increasingly complex digital worlds. Adopting tools and approaches which help build and protect reputation should take precedence now to maximise trust today, and competitive advantage tomorrow.

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